Whether you’re in the market for your first amplifier or your twentieth, chances are you already recognize tube amps as the holy grail of guitar tone. While other amps, like solid-state hybrids and modeling amps, have done an incredible job of approximating the warm and lively tune characteristic of tube amplifiers, there’s just no substitute for the real thing.

No invention has had a greater effect on the electric guitar, or its place in the band. Once considered a rhythm instrument that existed to help large bands keep time on stage, the advent of the tube amp allowed guitarists to cut through the dense instrumentation of the classic big bands of the ‘30s and ‘40s in ways that weren’t possible before.

Over the years, the evolution of tube amplifiers helped to usher in the days of rock ‘n roll, and it’s been instrumental in the development of newer styles such as Texas blues, jazz fusion, hard rock, and metal.

Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into the world of tube amps, and take a closer look at some of the best tube amps on the market right now.

What is the Best Tube Amp?

What exactly is a tube amp, and what does it do?

A tube amp is a guitar amplifier that takes the weak signal produced by guitar pickups and amplifies it so that it can be heard at a more appropriate volume.

Beginning in the 1930s, guitarists with a basic knowledge of how electricity functions began to realize that it was possible to make their instrument much louder by implementing a magnetic pickup on the guitar and plugging that into a device with a speaker to amplify the sound.

The first guitar pickup company, the Electro String Company, was incorporated by lap-steel guitarist George Beauchamp and now famous guitar builder Adolf Rickenbacher. Through trial and error, the pair arrived at the first guitar pickup only a few months later.

With their pickup prototype in good working order, the pair began to experiment with radios and PA systems as they attempted to develop the first amplifier. With the help of engineer Ralph Robertson, the team had created the first guitar amplifiers by 1941.

As they say in show business, the rest is history.

Icons like Leo Fender and Jim Marshall took the concept of the electric guitar amplifier and ran with it, and today, there are hundreds of incredible sounding tube amps for guitarists to choose from.

While the guitar industry continues to change and evolve, and new amplifiers chock full of bells and whistles hit the market regularly, there’s still no way to beat the tone of a classic tube amp, and it’s simple analog controls.

What makes the best tube amp?

There are a few criteria that separate the best tube amps from the rest of the pack. Whether you choose one of the iconic amps we’ll cover below in just a moment, or you choose a different amp altogether, you’ll want to evaluate every amp you play based on these criteria.

  1. Tone
  2. Number of channels
  3. Speaker quality
  4. Headroom

Tone

Hands down, the most critical consideration when shopping for the best tube amp is its tone. Tube amps are revered for their warm and reactive tone, but there’s still plenty of tube amps that sound like hot garbage.

Now, the idea of tone is subjective. What sounds great to one player may sound like nails on the chalkboard to another. The key is to make sure that the amp you choose delivers the tone that you need for the style you play. Further, you’ll want to ensure that the amp’s equalizer allows you to shape your tone in different ways.

If you’re a blues guitarist, you probably won’t appreciate the tone of a Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier the same way you’d appreciate a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe.

When you’re shopping for a tube amp in a store, it’s a good idea to bring your guitar with you, or, make sure the shop has the same guitar you use in stock so you can try it out with the amp. That way, you won’t be in for any surprises when you get home with your new amp.

If you play with lots of pedals, consider bringing them with you, too. A tube amp is a major purchase, and it’s going to be a piece of gear you rely on for years to come. Making sure the amp delivers the kind of tones you need is the first critical consideration you’ll need to make.

Number of Channels

Depending on the type of music you play, chances are, you’ll need at least one additional channel on your amp. Additional channels act sort of like an amp within the amp, allowing you to set up two or more distinct tones that you can access on the fly with your footswitch.

If you’re a blues or jazz guitarist, or if you rely on pedals for your overdrive or distortion tone, you can probably get away with a classic style tube amp that only includes one channel.

But, if you play a variety of styles, or if you’re a hard rock or metal guitarist, a second channel will be a practical necessity for you. Some amps even include a third or fourth channel or a footswitchable boost that adds more gain to your tone. Whether or not you need those features will depend on personal preference.

You’ll also want to ensure that the additional channels on the amp deliver the tone you need. For example, if you’re a metal guitarist who is in the market for a two channel amp, you’ll find a ton of Fender amps that fit the bill. However, you’re sure to be disappointed by their second channel, which features a classic overdrive tone that’s nothing like the tone modern metal guitarists demand.

Speaker Quality

While the preamp and power amp of an amplifier are the two components that make up the tone of an amplifier, if the amp is running into inferior quality speakers, you’re not going to be pleased with how the amp sounds. A top quality tube amp running into bargain basement speakers is like serving a five-star meal on a paper plate.

While some companies tap industry heavyweights like Celestion, Jensen, or Electro-Voice for their speakers, others make their own speakers. While some of these speakers can sound great, more often than not, they’re the result of the manufacturer trying to cut costs to make their amps available at a certain price point.

If the tone of the amp you’re playing sounds good to you, and you’re able to crank the amp without the woof and rattling that cheaper speakers often fall victim to, that’s a strong indication that the speakers are quality, and can deliver the tone you need.

Headroom

Finally, you’ll need to identify whether or not the amp you’re playing has the headroom you need to adapt to different scenarios.

Even tiny tube amps can usually get quite loud, but that doesn’t mean that a five or ten-watt tube amp is going to be able to cut it when you’re playing a venue that fits 500 people in it with a full band.

To determine how much headroom you need in an amp, you need to think about the type of music you play, and where you play it.

Are you a solo performer who plays in coffee shops or other intimate venues? A low-wattage tube amp should be perfect for you. Or, are you the guitarist in a rock band that likes to turn up to eleven? In that case, you’ll probably need an amp with at least 50 watts at your disposal.

Tube Amp Reviews – Our Top 5 Recommendations

VOX AC30C2

Best Overall

What Makes It Special?

A welcomed update to the iconic AC30 amp, the AC30C2 features a top boost channel, onboard reverb and tremolo effects, a true bypass stereo effects loop, and the simplest and most intuitive controls of any tube amp available.

  • 30 watts delivered by four EL84 power tubes and three 12AX7 preamp tubes
  • Twin 12” Celestion alnico blue speakers
  • True bypass stereo effects loop
  • Built-in reverb and tremolo

The AC30 is one of the most legendary tube amps of all time, but unless you derived most of your tone from pedals, it wasn’t especially practical for most guitarists. The lack of a second channel hamstrung the usefulness of the original AC30, even though it featured one of the purest, bell-like tube tones of all time.

The AC30C2 changes all this with the welcome addition of a second channel. Onboard reverb and tremolo are also new to the AC30 line, and both effects are rich and musical. The AC30C2 features incredibly intuitive controls mounted on the striking hot pink top panel of the amp.

The clean channel features a single volume control, which is basically all you’ll need to get the most out of the incredible sounding AC30C2. The second channel offers controls for volume, treble, and bass. The remaining controls allow you to set the parameters for the reverb and tremolo effects, and there’s also a master volume and tone control for tweaking the sound of the pristine clean channel of the AC30C2.

What Customers Like

  • Intuitive and easy to control
  • Great sounding reverb and tremolo effects
  • Quality speakers

What Customers Dislike

  • Limited tone shaping on the clean channel
  • Not as well built as older Vox amps

Fender Blues Jr. III

Best For the Price

What Makes It Special?

Smooth and responsive with all the tone we’ve come to expect from Fender’s valve amps, the Blues Junior III features Fender’s beautiful sounding spring reverb and a footswitchable boost that unlocks a whole new level of tone previously missing from older Blues Junior models.

  • Two EL34 and three 12AX7 preamp tubes
  • Genuine Fender spring reverb
  • Footswitchable FAT boost
  • Italian made Jensen speaker

If you’re looking for studio ready tube tone on a tight budget, there aren’t many options for you out there. Thankfully, the Blues Junior. III happens to be one of the most affordable and best sounding small tube amps on the market. The latest iteration of this classic Fender includes several upgrades that have been missing on past Blues Junior models.

The Blues Junior III features an iconic lacquered tweed finish, a footswitchable FAT boost option that effectively functions as a second channel, and fifteen watts of power delivered by two EL34 power tubes and three 12AX7 preamp tubes. An Italian made Jensen speaker provides all the tone and nuance we’ve come to expect from Fender tube amps.

What Customers Like

  • Lively and warm tube tone
  • Boost switch
  • Best reverb in the business

What Customers Dislike

  • Tends to blow fuses
  • Not large enough for bigger gigs and live bands

Marshall JVM215C

What Makes It Special?

The JVM215C provides classic Marshall tone with more flexibility than ever thanks to two fully independent channels that each feature independent master volume and reverb controls. Each channel includes three distinct voicing modes, making this one of the most versatile amps Marshall has ever made.

  • 50 watts of all-tube tone delivered by two EL34 and five 12AX7 preamp tubes
  • Independent reverb and master volume for each channel
  • Three voicing modes per channel
  • Includes programmable four-button footswitch

Marshall amps have been the unofficial sound of rock music since the early ‘60s, and the JVM215C provides all that classic tone with several welcomed upgrades that modern guitarists are sure to love. Each fully independent channel includes controls for gain, master volume, bass, middle, and treble, and reverb, and there are three voicing modes per channel.

These new voicing modes allow guitarists to seamlessly transition from classic Marshall tone to modern high gain roar, all without losing the warmth and responsiveness of the all-tube preamp and power amp sections.

The three voicing modes on the clean channel are an especially welcomed addition, and they’re a major improvement over the typical clean channel of Marshall tube amps, which have left a lot to be desired in the past.

What Customers Like

  • Completely independent controls for each channel
  • New voicing modes add tons of versatility compared to older Marshall amps
  • Classic Marshall looks and tone

What Customers Dislike

  • Some voicing modes are especially noisy
  • Very heavy compared to other 1x12s

VHT Special 6

Best for Beginners & Students

What Makes It Special?

Don’t let its small size fool you, the VHT Special 6 is exceptionally powerful despite it’s tiny, portable size. A footswitchable ultra boost, tube driven effects loop, and variable wattage operation make this portable tube amp a perfect option for beginners and students.

  1. 6 watts of all tube power delivered by two 12AX7 preamp tubes and a 6L6 power tube
  2. Hand-wired circuitry
  3. Variable wattage
  4. Three voicing modes

The Special 6 is the ideal amp for beginners and students who aren’t willing to sacrifice tone in their search for a great sounding and portable amp. All the circuitry is wired by hand, making for an incredibly responsive and warm tone.

Impressive features like high and low gain inputs, a tube-driven effects loop, footswitchable boost, and depth and tone controls make this lunchbox-sized practice amp a perfect choice for practice and studio use.

What Customers Like

  • Ultra knob delivers incredible high gain tones
  • Easy to transport
  • Three different voicing modes

What Customers Dislike

  • Not large enough for gigs
  • Speaker is mediocre

Bugera Infinium Vintage V5

Best on a Budget

What Makes It Special?

A hand-built Class A tube amp that uses Bugera’s Infinium Tube Life Multiplier technology to maximize the life of your tubes, and the tone of the amp. Simple and intuitive controls make this an ideal amp for practice or studio applications.

  • Automatic tube biasing with LED tube life indicator
  • Built-in reverb

Bugera has made quite a name for themselves as a boutique-quality amp manufacturer without the boutique amp price tag. The Infinium V5 is a compact five-watt tube amp that’s ideal for practice or studio use. Simple controls for gain, volume, tone, and reverb allow you to dial in rich and warm tube tone in a matter of seconds.

A single EL84 power tube and a 12AX7 preamp tube deliver rich plenty of all-tube tone, and a variable power attenuator allows you to hit the perfect saturation point without blowing out any eardrums.

What Customers Like

  • Genuine tube tone for cheap
  • Power attenuator operates at .1, 1, or 5 watts.

What Customers Dislike

  • Too small to gig with
  • Mediocre quality speaker

6 More Really Good Tube Amps

Peavey 6505+

In the late ‘80s, Peavey turned the industry on its head with the development of Eddie Van Halen’s signature amplifier, the 5150. Several iterations of that amp have brought us to the 6505+, which delivers the classic high gain tone of the 5150 with some modern upgrades.

This powerful all-tube combo delivers 60 watts of all tube power through two 6L6GC power tubes and an impressive five 12AX7 preamp tubes. The 6505+ has two channels with independent resonance, presence, and EQ for each channel, as well as a master reverb controls. Pre and post gain controls on the lead channel offer unprecedented tonal shaping.

If you’re looking for an amp with a pristine clean channel, you can skip this one. But, if you’re looking for a monstrous modern metal amp, the 6505+ should be one of the first amps you plug into.

Fender Hot Rod Deville Michael Landau Edition

You probably don’t know the name Michael Landau, but you’ve heard his guitar playing for decades on some of your favorite records. As one of the premier studio musicians in the world, Fender tapped Landau for his own signature model based off the iconic Hot Rod Deville.

Some notable changes with this model include the addition of higher-quality Celestion speakers and some tweaks to the channel set up of the amp. Usually a two channel amp, this Deville removes the second channel in favor of two independent and footswitchable volume controls.

Considering Fender has never been known for producing strong lead channels on their amps, this new feature is essentially addition by subtraction. If you derive most of your sound from pedals, this should be one of the first amps you test drive.

Orange Rocker 32

Renowned for their classically British take on modern snarl, Orange produces some of the most sought over tube amps on the market. Their 2×10” Rocker 32 combo is a perfect mid-sized tube amp if you’re after the signature Orange tone.

This amp offers two separate channels with master controls for gain, EQ, and volume. A second master volume allows you to dial up that natural tube overdrive without blowing out any eardrums, and a power switch allows you to run the amp at 15 or 30 watts depending on where you’re playing.

A semi-closed cabinet loaded with twin 10” Orange Gold speakers deliver tons of tone, and impressive bass response despite the small footprint of the Rocker 32.

Laney GH50R 2×12

Being one of the lesser known amp manufacturers haven’t stopped Laney from dishing out tons of incredibly solid tube amps over the years. The GH50R 2×12 combo is one of their best efforts yet, and it features the versatility you need to conquer practically any playing scenario.

The GH50R delivers 50 all tube watts thanks to four 12AX7 preamp tubes and twin EL34 power tubes. Celestion Vintage 30 speakers, long considered the industry standard for tone enthusiasts, provide this powerhouse with beautiful, high fidelity tone.

The amp has master controls for volume and tone, and each channel has controls for bass, middle, treble. The clean channel also features a drive control and the dirty channel provides drive and volume controls. This amp also features reverb, with a master level control for the effect.

Marshall Studio Classic JCM800 2203

Arguably the most iconic amplifier of all time, the Marshall JCM800 is the preferred amplifier of metal greats like Zakk Wylde, Kirk Hammett, and Dave Mustaine.

Discontinued for several decades, players were forced to head to the used market if they wanted to add one of these wild beasts to their own rig. Thankfully, Marshall has reissued the iconic original 2203 series JCM800 in a smaller 20-watt enclosure.

This faithful reissue features the same master preamp and volume controls as the original, as well as a three band EQ. While later model JCM800’s offered an additional channel, the original 2203 series single channel amp is the one favored by Marshall purists.

If you’re looking for the bell-like chime of a Fender or Vox amp, you’ll want to skip over this one. But, for metalheads who are determined to find the holy grail of classic metal tone, this amp is a must have.

EVH 5150III 1×12 Combo

After a contentious split with Peavey, Eddie Van Halen took his trademarked 5150 amp with him, starting his own amplifier company in the process.

While the original Peavey 5150, 5150II, and even the later 6505 amps delivered tons of high-gain tube fury, they all were severely lacking in the clean department. Thankfully, the latest 5150 amp remedies this and offers a British style clean channel reminiscent of a Vox AC30.

The other two channels provide a truly sadistic level of high gain, and all the parameters you need to shape this modern metal monster to your heart’s content. If you’re a guitarist that primarily plays metal, but needs the versatility to tackle other styles as well, the 5150III from EVH is well worth a closer look.

5 FAQ’s about Tube Amps

What are the different types of amps?

As a guitarist, you’ll encounter four different types of amps on the market:

  • Tube amps
  • Solid-state amps
  • Hybrid amps
  • Modeling amps

Tube amps are the original guitar amplifier, and they rely on vacuum tubes to generate their tone and power. The vacuum tubes provide a sound that’s characterized as warm and reactive. Because of their sensitivity, tube amps allow the natural tone and style of a guitar player to shine through in their playing.

Over the years, technology has enabled manufacturers to add additional channels to their amplifiers, but outside of that development, the tube amps of today have been largely unchanged for over 50 years.

Tube amps do have some inherent drawbacks. For one, vacuum tubes and the electronics necessary to power them are expensive and delicate. Vacuum tubes also have a lifespan, and after a few years, they die out and need to be replaced. Not only is replacing tubes expensive, but the amps themselves are pricey as well.

As an alternative to tube amplifiers, solid-state amplifiers were developed, beginning in the ‘70s. These amps forgo vacuum tubes and instead generate their tone and power with a series of transistors and diodes.

Solid-state amplifiers are cheaper to produce, they require virtually no maintenance, and they’re also less heavy than tube amps. While all those developments are fantastic, they don’t address the most important piece of the puzzle, which is the tone of the amplifier.

Unfortunately, solid-state amplifiers lack the character and warmth of tube-powered amplifiers, and while they certainly have their place in the world, they’re unable to generate that prized tube amp tone.

This fact led to the development of hybrid amplifiers. While these amps still employ a solid-state power amp section, the solid-state preamp was replaced with a tube preamp. Since the preamp tubes of an amp are responsible for much of its tone and character, this breakthrough promised guitarists an economical and low-maintenance way to achieve tube amp tone.

While these amps do offer a much more tube-like tone when compared to a fully solid state amp, they still aren’t quite the real thing, and guitarists who are serious about achieving the best tone possible still turn to tube amps to deliver their signature sound.

The newest and perhaps the most exciting type of amp available is the modeling amp. These amps employ solid-state or hybrid technology along with with complex digital processors which can emulate many different popular tube amplifiers, and a library of stompbox-quality guitar effects.

They’re still not tube amps, but modeling amps are arguably the next best thing. By making a room of different sought-after amps and effects available at your fingertips, modeling amps have made it easier than ever for guitarists to achieve the different tones they’re after without investing tons of money into amps and effects. That said, they still don’t have that genuine tube tone.

Does the size of the speaker matter?

When it comes to speakers, size does matter.

The industry standard for amp speakers is 12”. A 12” speaker can generate plenty of power and tone, and they can effectively reproduce the full frequency range of the guitar. Most tube combo amps feature either one or two 12” speakers. Speaker cabinets for amplifier heads feature one, two, or four 12” speakers in most cases.

Occasionally, you’ll come across an amp that uses 10” speakers instead of 12”, and some guitarists find these speakers to be sweeter sounding and more responsive. However, they usually lack the well-defined bass response of a 12” speaker.

Smaller speakers are usually reserved for practice amplifiers. While they’re able to produce a great tone, they tend to lack definition and bass response when the amp is turned up to a higher volume.

What are the top tube amp brands?

Marshall is one of most iconic manufacturers of tube amps, and they’ve been synonymous with the sound of rock music since the early ‘60s. They’ve developed some of the most famous amps in the world, including the JCM line, which is still the preferred amp of many hard rock and metal guitarists.

Fender is another iconic tube amp manufacturer, and they’ve been producing tube guitar amps since 1949. Fender amps are considered some of the warmest and most expressive tube amps of all time, and their clean tone has been a benchmark that other manufacturers have strived to replicate for over fifty years.

Mesa/Boogie is one of the most popular boutique quality amp companies in the world, and while they’re best known for their iconic rectifier amplifiers, they also produce a full line of other incredible amps, like the Mark V, which has been a staple in the repertoire of studio musicians for decades.

Beyond these major manufacturers, there are countless smaller amp companies that deliver incredible sounding tube amps. Many players would argue that the new class of amp companies like ENGL, Bogner, and Matchless produce amps that completely outclass the best offerings from more recognizable companies. Our advice? Play them all before you decide!

How many watts do I need on a tube amp?

The amount of wattage you need will depend on the environments in which you play.

The first thing you’ll want to keep in mind is that tube watts are significantly louder than solid state watts. As a rule of thumb, every tube watt is worth approximately three solid state watts. This is important to keep in mind if you’re making the transition from a solid-state amp to your first tube amp.

Another important thing to consider is that tube amps are characterized by the way they “break up” at higher volumes. While tube amps usually sound great at any volume, they unveil even more warmth and character when they’re played at higher volumes. For this reason, many guitarists often go with an amp with slightly less wattage than they need so they can drive the amp harder.

If you’re looking for a practice tube amp, five watts is usually sufficient. Tube amps in the 10-15 watt range are usually good for small clubs and intimate rooms, while an amp with at least 30 watts will be necessary for playing in larger venues.

If you play in an especially loud or heavy band, you’ll want to consider a 50 or 100-watt tube amp.

Where can I learn more about tube amps?

Tube amps are a historic icon in the guitar world, and players and researchers have written hundreds of thousands of words in their honor. You’ll find tons of amazing resources for learning more about tube amps. Here are a few of our favorites:

Pro Audio Land is a one-stop shop for all things related to music and audio, and they also have tons of valuable information and history relating to each instrument. Their deep dive into the history of tube amps is well worth a read, especially if you’re interested in the history of the electric guitar.

Premier Guitar is a trusted resource that guitarists have relied on for news, tips, and tricks, and rig rundowns from some of their favorite players. The link above is required reading for all the tinkerers among us who are curious about the inner workings of tube amps.

Guitar World is the largest and most read guitar magazine on the market, and thousands of guitar players eagerly await the arrival of a new issue every month. Their website features much of the same content as their print magazine, and their guide to tube amp maintenance is a must for players looking to get the most out of their amps while keeping their maintenance bills low.

Conclusion

The holy grail of amplifiers, the humble tube amp is a practical necessity for any guitarist who is serious about achieving the best tone possible. Whether you go with one of the amazing amps we’ve covered above, or you stake out on your own in search of the perfect amp for you, one thing is for certain: if you care about your tone, you need a tube amp.

Do you play a tube amp? Which is your favorite? Any tips or tricks for our readers? Sound off in the comments below!

When shopping for a tube amp, many guitarists will also check out:

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